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Action learning is an educational process whereby the participant studies their own actions and experience in order to improve performance. This concept is close to learning-by-doing and teaching through examples and repetitions.
Action learning is done in conjunction with others, in small groups called action learning sets or two-in, two-out team. It is proposed as particularly suitable for adults, as it enables each person to reflect on and review the action they have taken and the learning points arising. This should then guide future action and improve performance.
The method stands in contrast with the traditional teaching methods that focus on the presentation of knowledge and skills. Action learning focuses on research into action taken and knowledge emerges as a result that should lead to the improvement of skills and performance. It has strong links to various philosophies relating to existentialism, the psychology of self-understanding and self-development, and the sociology of group based learning.
Professor Reginald Revans is the originator of action learning. He had invented and developed this method in the United Kingdom in the 1940s, working in the Coal Board. he encouraged managers to meet together in small groups, to share their experiences and ask each other questions about what they saw and heard. The approach increased productivity by over 30%. Later in hospitals, he concluded that the conventional instructional methods were largely ineffective.
People had to be aware of their lack of relevant knowledge and be prepared to explore the area of their ignorance with suitable questions and help from other people in similar positions.From one who had started as an experimental physicist, this was a startling conclusion to come to. It brought him into head-on conflict with educational institutions using lectures, such as academe and schools of management.
Later, Revans relented and this is made clear in the opening chapter of his book (Revans, 1980) which describes the formula:
where L is learning, P is programming (or programmed knowledge with simulations) and Q is questioning to create insight into what people see, hear or feel. However, Revans never proved why the relationship between P and Q was additive, rather than multiplicative, or why the coefficients of P and Q are equal, which assumes that P and Q are equally important. This lack of proof hurts the credibility of the formula.
Q uses :
- "close" questions:
- "objective" questions:
- "relative" questions:
- "open" questions:
Although Q is the cornerstone of the method, the more relaxed formulation has enabled action learning to become widely accepted in many countries all over the world. In Revans' book there are examples from the USA, Canada, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific.
Cambridge experience with Nobels
The contribution of Revans is being seen today through initiatives in leadership development such as those made by Dr Richard Hale see www.richardhaleassociates.com working with major organisations. They have developed a new approach to education of leaders which is recognised by leading universities interested in work based learning in the UK. This puts the business or personal questions issues before the syllabus, so following Revans' principles 'theory follows the action'. Richard Hale spent his early career in the GEC organisation where Revans' ideas were pursued by Sir Arnold Weinstock. Revans distinguished between puzzles and problems, noting that action learning lent itself to working on real problems (e.g. improving productivity or morale rather than puzzles e.g. constructing a balance sheet.) He also noted from his experience working with Nobel prize winning scientists at University of Cambridge, that there was a distinction between cleverness (i.e. knowledge) and wisdom, which showed in the form of insightful questioning. He showed that much powerful learning comes from people learning 'with and from others', hence many action learning programmes put the 'action learning set' at the heart of the process. Key writers on the subject have been Mike Pedler and Alan Mumford in the UK, Michael Marquardt and Joe Raelin in the USA, Robert Kramer (2007a, 2007b, 2008) in the public sector region. Revans achieved major honours in Belgium where he linked higher education with industry having results that impacted on national economic recovery.
ARL and MiL Models
As with other educational processes, practitioners have built on Revan’s pioneering work and have adapted some tenets to accommodate their needs. One such branch of action learning is Action Reflection Learning (ARL), which originated in Sweden among educators and consultants under the guidance of Lennart Rohlin of the MiL Institute in the 1970’s. With the so-called “MiL model”, ARL gained momentum with the work of LIM, Leadership in International Management, under the leadership of Ernie Turner in the USA.
The main differences between Revans’ approach to action learning and the ‘MiL Model’ in the ‘80s are :
- the role of a project team advisor (later called Learning Coach), which Revans advised against;
- the use of team projects rather than individual challenges;
- the duration of the sessions, which is more flexible in ARL designs.
The MiL Model evolved organically as practitioners responded to diverse needs and restrictions. In an experiential learning mode, MiL practitioners varied the number and duration of the sessions, the type of project selected, the role of the Learning Coach and the style of his/her interventions.
ARL evolved organically through the choices and savvy intuitions of practitioners, who informally exchanged their experiences with each other. It became a somewhat shared practice, which incorporated elements of design and intervention that the practitioners adopted because of their efficacy. In 2004, Isabel Rimanoczy researched and coded the ARL methodology, identifying 16 elements and 10 underlying principles.
Worldwide Growth of Action Learning
The use of action learning is beginning to expand on a worldwide basis. Most Korean companies use action learning in their leadership development programs. Remote countries such as Mauritius and Papua New Guinea have extensive action learning programs. Singapore, Netherlands, Nigeria, Malaysia, Australia, South Africa, Thailand, Italy, Belgium and Japan. Books on action learning have been translated into Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Russian, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, and Persian. Global Action Learning Forums have been held annually for the past 15 years in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
"Unlearning" as a Prerequisite for the "Learning" in Action Learning
Robert Kramer (2007a, 2007b, 2008) pioneered the use of action learning for officials in the U.S. government, and at the European Commission in Brussels and Luxembourg. He also introduced action learning to scientists at the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen and to officials of the Estonian government at the State Chancellery (Prime Minister's Office) in Tallinn, Estonia.
Unlike other writers in the field of action learning, Kramer applies the theory of art, creativity and "unlearning" of the psychologist Otto Rank to his practice of action learning.
Questions allow group members to “step out of the frame of the prevailing ideology,” as Otto Rank wrote in Art and Artist (1932/1989, p. 70), reflect on their assumptions and beliefs, and reframe their choices. The process of “stepping out” of a frame, out of a form of knowing – a prevailing ideology – is analogous to the work of artists as they struggle to give birth to fresh ways of seeing the world, perspectives that allow them to see aspects of the world that no artists, including themselves, have ever seen before.
The most creative artists, such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Leonardo, know how to separate even from their own greatest public successes, from earlier artistic incarnations of themselves. Their “greatness consists precisely in this reaching out beyond themselves, beyond the ideology which they have themselves fostered,” according to Art and Artist (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 368). Through the lens of Otto Rank’s work on understanding art and artists, action learning can be seen as the never-completed process of learning how to “step out of the frame” of the ruling mindset, whether one’s own or the culture’s – in other words, of learning how to unlearn.
Comparing the process of unlearning to the “breaking out” process of birth, Otto Rank was the first psychologist to suggest that a continual capacity to separate from “internal mental objects” – from internalized institutions, beliefs and assumptions; from the restrictions of culture, social conformity and received wisdom – is the sine qua non for life-long creativity.
Unlearning necessarily involves separation from one’s self concept, as it has been culturally conditioned to conform to familial, group, occupational or organizational allegiances. According to Rank (1932/1989), unlearning or breaking out of our shell from the inside is “a separation [that] is so hard, not only because it involves persons and ideas that one reveres, but because the victory is always, at bottom, and in some form, won over a part of one’s ego” (p. 375).
In the organizational context, learning how to unlearn is vital because what we assume to be true has merged into our identity. We refer to the identity of an individual as a “mindset.” We refer to the identity of an organizational group as a “culture.” Action learners learn how to question, probe and separate from, both kinds of identity—i.e., their “individual” selves and their “social” selves. By opening themselves to critical inquiry, they begin to learn how to emancipate themselves from what they "know" – they learn how to unlearn.
Role of AL Coach and Questions
An ongoing challenge of action learning has been achieving both action and learning in an action learning project. Usually the urgency of the problem or task decreases or eliminates the reflective time necessary for learning. More and more organizations have recognized the critical importance of an action learning coach in the process, someone who has the authority and responsibility of creating time and space for the group to learn at the individual, group and organizational level. There is controversy relative to the need for an action learning coach. Reg Revans was against the use of learning coaches and, in general, of interventionist facilitators and "certified"coaches" . He believed the action learning set or group could practice action learning on its own. Neither did he want a group to become dependent on a coach. Moreover, reflection was always a fundamental component of action learning for him and did not, therefore, have to be emphasized as some consultancies have done.
Self-managed action learning (Bourner et al., 2002; O'Hara et al., 2004) is a variant of action learning that dispenses with the need for a facilitator of the action learning set. Shurville and Rospigliosi (2009) have explored taking self-managed action learning online to create virtual self managed action learning. Deborah Waddill has developed guidelines for virtual action learning teams, what she calls action e-learning.
To increase the reflective, learning aspect of action learning, many groups now adopt the practice or norm of focusing on questions rather than statements while working on the problem and developing strategies and actions. Questions also enables the group to listen, to more quickly become a cohesive team, and to generate creative, out-of-the-box thinking.
- Boshyk, Y. (Ed.)2000. Business Driven Action Learning: Global Best Practices. London, U.K., Palgrave-Macmillan.
- Boshyk, Y., (Ed.) 2002. Action Learning Worldwide: Experiences of Leadership and Organizational Development. London: U.K., Palgrave-Macmillan.
- Boshyk, Y. and Dilworth, R.L. (Eds.) 2009. Action Learning: History and Evolution. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Bourner, T., O’Hara, S. &Webber, T. 2002. Learning to manage change in the Health Service, in: A. Brockbank, I.
- Crainer, Stuart. 1999. The 75 Greatest Management Decisions Ever Made. New York: AMACOM Publishing
- Dilworth, R. L., and Willis, V. 2003. Action Learning: Images and Pathways.
- Dilworth, R.L., and Boshyk, Y. (Eds.). 2009. Action Learning and Its Applications. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Chambers, A. and Hale, R. 2007. Keep Walking: Leadership Learning in Action, RHA Publications, UK.
- Kramer, R. 2008. Learning How to Learn: Action Learning for Leadership Development. A chapter in Rick Morse (Ed.) Innovations in Public Leadership Development. Washington DC: M.E. Sharpe and National Academy of Public Administration, pp. 296–326.
- Kramer, R. 2007b. How Might Action Learning Be Used to Develop the Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Capacity of Public Administrators? Journal of Public Affairs Education, 13 (2): 205-230.
- Kramer, R. 2007a. Leading Change Through Action Learning. The Public Manager, 36 (3):38-44.
- McGill & N. Beech (Eds) Reflective learning in practice, Aldershot, Gower.
- Marquardt, M. J. 1999. Action learning in action. Palo Alto, CA:Davies-Black.
- Marquardt, M. J. 2004. Harnessing the power of action learning.T�D, 58(6): 26–32.
- Marquardt, M.J. 2004. Optimizing the power of action learning. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.
- Marquardt, M.J., Leonard, S., Freedman, A., and Hill,C. 2009. Action learning for developing leaders and organizations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Press.
- Martinsons, M.G. 1998. MBA action learning projects. Hong Kong University Press.
- O'Hara, S., Bourner, T. and Webber, T. 2004. Practice of self managed action learning. Action learning: research and practice,1(1): 29-42.
- O'Neil, J. and Marsick, V.J. 2007. Understanding Action Learning. NY: AMACOM Publishing
- Pedler, M., (Ed.). 1991. Action learning in practice (2nd ed.). Aldershot,UK: Gower.
- Pedler, M. 1996. Action learning for managers. London: Lemos and Crane.
- Raelin, J. A. 1997. Action learning and action science: Are they different? Organizational Dynamics, 26(1): 21–34.
- Raelin, J. A. 2000. Work-based learning: The new frontier of management development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Rank, O. 1932/1989. Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development. W.W. Norton.
- Revans, R. 1980. Action learning: New techniques for management. London: Blond & Briggs, Ltd.
- Revans, R. W. 1982. The origin and growth of action learning.Brickley, UK: Chartwell-Bratt.
- Revans, R. W. 1998. ABC of action learning. London: Lemos and Crane.
- Rimanoczy, I., and Turner, E. 2008. Action Reflection Learning: solving real business problems by connecting learning with earning. US, Davies-Black Publishing.
- Rohlin, L., Turner, E. and others. 2002. Earning while Learning in Global Leadership: the Volvo MiL Partnership. Sweden, MiL Publishers AB.
- Sawchuk, P. H. 2003. Adult learning and technology in working class life. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Shurville, S.J. and Rospigliosi, A. 2009. Implementing blended self-managed action learning for digital entrepreneurs in higher education. Action Learning: Research and Practice, Volume 6, Issue 1 March 2009 , pages 53 – 61.
- Interview with Dr Richard Hale on Action Learning Interviewed by Chris Duckworth, K Learning, KPMG, 14 April 2005:
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- The Annual Global Forum on Executive Development and Business Driven Action Learning
- World Institute for Action Learning
- Action Learning Associates
- Action Learning article at Learning & Teaching
- Revans Collection at the University of Salford
- Articles on Action Learning
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